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I Make My Kids Pay Bills

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

I didn't set out to collect money from my kids like some miserly scrooge. In fact, it was embarrassing the first time I asked them to help out, but I realized that their ability to lend a hand was also a powerful life lesson for them.

The first time I asked my sons to pay for something was a few months ago, and it was for their own school lunches. I felt horrible. We were in between paychecks, didn't have anything in the fridge that was easy to pack, and I had no cash in my wallet.

Both of the boys, who at the time were 16 and 17 years old, had recently started working at a local fast food restaurant after school and on weekends, and, in addition to nightly tips, they'd received their first paychecks.

"Do you mind paying for your own lunches today?" I asked. Neither of the kids seemed to mind, and the day continued like any other. When I told my husband what I'd done, he was happy about it.

"Good. By the time I was their age, I was paying for all my own stuff. I even bought my own school clothes," he shared.

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Unlike my husband, I was raised in a more sheltered environment – where all of my needs were met by my parents until the day I left home. Making our children pay for things while they were still under our care made me feel like we were shirking our parental duties.

"Look at our friends," my husband pointed out. "They all send money home to their parents in Mexico. It's what Latino families do. Kids help out if they can, and that's nothing to be ashamed of."

His words stuck with me over the next week. As an active duty-enlisted military family, we've always lived paycheck to paycheck. Neither of us could remember a time when money wasn't tight, or when we weren't scraping by to make ends meet. While we've always been able to provide for our children, it wasn't without sacrifice.

Whether it was putting off my dental work to make sure the kids' cavities were filled, or cutting the cable to save money so we could pay for their after school activities, we were used to balancing our budget by putting our own needs and wants on the shelf.

While I could admit that it would be helpful to have our kids pitch in, my pride still prevented me from taking that step on a more permanent basis.

Then – a mailbox full of medical bills changed everything.

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As medical bills piled up, I broke down and asked my sons to start helping out with groceries. I was expecting them to protest, or to at least be upset with me, but they were excited to contribute.

A few months prior, out of frustration, I had switched my sons and myself off our full-coverage military insurance to partial coverage because it would allow us to see non-military doctors. It was a good move, as my youngest son desperately needed spinal surgery and had spent almost a year in pain because the military doctors weren't ordering necessary tests that would have revealed his massively bulging disc.

The switch gave him access to proper care and a qualified surgeon, but it also meant that we were suddenly responsible for a portion of our medical costs, and after a surgery and hospital stay – plus numerous presurgical and post-operative appointments, we owed a lot of money to cover our deductible.

That's when I broke down and asked my sons to start helping out with groceries. I was expecting them to protest, or to at least be upset with me, but they were excited to contribute.

We settled on a small sum: $50 each, per child, per month. This extra cash allowed me to bridge the gap between our grocery budget and our paychecks. The kids also agreed to start paying for their own lunches on a permanent basis. Finally, I also asked them if they could pitch in for gas money while we continue to drive them until they get their own licenses. Once that happens, they will be responsible for their own gas money as well as the cost of insuring them on our policy.

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Without asking, my sons also started buying their own school clothes. While it surprised me and my husband, it also lifted a giant burden off our shoulders. Gone was the hefty expense of buying two teenagers new clothes and shoes every year. My youngest explained that he didn't want to wait for summer and had the cash to buy the clothes he wanted, so he was happy to do so. My oldest, now 18, is the kind of guy that wears clothes until the last thread falls off, and said he hates having to shop for new clothes, anyway, so he would rather buy things as he needs them. We'll still offer to help out, but this transition has been a welcomed relief for our bank accounts since we don't have to save up all year to cover the cost of replacing their wardrobe in the summer.

I've noticed something about my sons over the last few months since they started helping us financially. They've become more budget-conscious when spending their own money, looking for sales and coupons to help them save. They've also stopped inhaling food the minute it comes in the door. Boxes of cereal, gallons of milk, and snack foods actually last throughout the week instead of being consumed within hours of purchase. This unintended benefit of having my sons pay for a portion of our groceries has been fantastic.

Did a bit of my pride vanish when my sons started helping with the bills? Sure. But I've learned that it's OK to ask for help when we need it, and it can be a great lesson to our children when we empower them to help us when they are able to do so.

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